Friday, September 04, 2015

Are you a Good Person?

Well, are you? Are you a member of the human race? Does seeing other people suffering not spark your compassion? Look at this:

Not graphic enough? What about this:

Convinced yet? I'm not going to post the next picture in the sequence, because we all know what it is already. I have two little girls aged six and four, and every time I see that photo I want to cry.

But we're all Good People here aren't we? And now that the refugee crisis in the Middle East, which has been going on for 3-4 years, has now been sufficiently illustrated it's important that we all demonstrate what Good People we are by decrying our Government for Not Doing Enough, and shout loudly that Something Should Be Done. It's important when doing this to shout loudly that Britain has only taken 216 Syrian refugees, while Germany has taken 800,000.
It's basically irrelevant to this argument that Britain has actually taken in about 5,000 Syrian refugees, or that the figure for Germany is total applications expected this year, rather than those accepted from one country. Details aren't the point here - righteous anger is.

I understand this (I feel it too, because I am a Good Person, just like all of you). But because it's Friday I'm going to take things a step or so further. First things first. When you see desperate refugees fleeing a brutal civil war between brutal authoritarian fascists on one hand, and things that are even worse on the other, the natural immediate impulse is to help. Britain has a history of welcoming refugees, and even where that history is less pure than we might like, the impulse to help has always been there.

So the obvious response is for Britain to accept many more refugees from Syria and either to accept them as permanent residents here, or to provide long-term refuge until and unless Syria can be stabilised sufficiently for them to return home. There are thousands of refugees at Calais desperate to get to Britain. We could start there. There are thousands more rescued in the Mediterranean by the Royal Navy. They could come too. Lastly there are hundreds of thousands in Greece, Italy and Hungary escaping by land and sea. We could take our share of them too.

The question that should be asked at this point though is what our actual aim is. Is it to minimise loss of life among the refugee population? Is it to reduce the numbers risking their lives on rickety and overcrowded ships on the Med? Is it to do everything we can to assist in the rebuilding of Syria once the war ends? Or is it to give ourselves a pat on the back and a nice glowy feeling of having done the right thing?

Because if our actual intention is any of the first three, then concentrating on the actual numbers taken in by Britain is counter-productive thing. If we rescue people from the Med, scoop them up out of the water and take them to the UK, what message are we sending? Obviously, that the way to get to Britain is to get on a boat. Equally, if we take in refugees that have made it to continental Europe, then the message is that the way to get to Britain is to get to Europe first. That is the journey, from Turkey, from Egypt, from Libya that is killing people. A primary policy should be to reduce the number of people wanting to make that journey, not increase the incentives for making it.

A policy that has a fair chance of actually saving more lives is to increase funding for the refugee camps in the region, and to grant asylum to people from those camps. This is, incidentally, more or less exactly what the UK has been doing, providing more money in aid than any other EU country (and as much as Germany and France combined). To the extent that Britain resettles more Syrian refugees (and for what it's worth I think they should, because I'm a Good Person, remember?) then these refugees should be taken from the refugee camps already established in the area. Not least because the idea that the best place to gain asylum to Europe is from a refugee camp is an idea that we want to take hold.

A lot can and should be done to make these camps better, and to ensure that people can work, that children can learn and that society can endure within them. But sometimes the clear, obviously morally right thing to do isn't the best thing to do at all.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Worst King Evah

Well this is a load of old bollocks isn't it?
More than 60 writers were surveyed by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), with Henry VIII taking 20% of the vote to find the worst monarch and criticised for a wide range of crimes: he was “obsessive”, “syphilitic” and a “self-indulgent wife murderer and tyrant”, according to respondents.
Henry may have been all these things, but they make him (in the useful shorthand of 1066 and all that) a Bad Man, rather than a Bad King. Henry's reign was definitely chequered - his debasement of the coinage was a far more serious fault than any mentioned above - but there were achievements to put in the balance against the flaws. His generally disastrous foreign policy can be set against his work in establishing the Royal Navy as a permanent force. His break with Rome may have been largely accidental, but in establishing the Church of England Henry ranks as one of our more consequential monarchs.

In short, Henry VIII may not be the best monarch (or even one of the best) but he is definitely not the worst. The reason he's ranked there, I suspect, is that he's well known and has eye-catching personality flaws. So, who is the worst English monarch? I used to be a historian, so I'll start as all historians should: by defining the terms. What it shouldn't mean is whether you are a bad person (it doesn't matter, and for the most part we don't know). What it should mean is the impact and effect the monarch had on the country.

This is why I really don't understand the HWA list, which includes entries such as:
 “Though never crowned, [Matilda] was effectively Britain’s first female king, and refused to conform to expectations demanded of the ‘gentle sex’,” said Liberty’s Fire author Lydia Syson.
Girl power and all that, but Matilda (although nominated as heir) was never King of England and was certainly not Britain's first female king (that would be Aethelflaed) . More importantly, the period when she claimed the throne was a total disaster for England - civil war raged between Stephen and Matilda for 20 years, law and order broke down completely and the country was impoverished. That really should be criteria for naming her (and Stephen to be fair) as among England's worst ever monarchs despite her having a vagina.

Anyway, my pick for worst English monarch is Richard I. Despite the romantic nickname, and military genius his reign was a disaster for England. For a start he was almost entirely uninterested in England except as a source of taxes to pay for wars in France and crusades in the Holy Land. It's estimated that he spent about 6 months as King in England in his 10 year reign mostly to arrange his coronation (marked by a pogrom against the Jews). To wage his wars in France he raised taxes to an eye-watering level (despite the coffers having been full on his accession, thanks to Henry II's Saladin tithe). Then, to top it all off, he got himself captured in Europe and England was compelled to stump up a ransom of 150,000 marks.

This ransom is usually given as £2-3bn in modern money, but that entirely fails to convey its scale. A better way of looking at it is that 150,000 marks was about 3 times England's annual revenue, and that to raise it, a tax was levied that confiscated a quarter of both clergy and laymen's wealth. A more comparable figure might therefore be the equivalent of 3 times the UK's annual revenue - so very roughly £1.5 trillion.

Richard I bankrupted England, while not caring a tuppenny damn for the place. I'm open to suggestions, but he sets a very high standard for worst English monarch. I agree with William Stubbs:
A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

In the red

A note for picture editors. This isn't showing what you think it is:

All that red is a good sign. This is what bad news looks like on the Chinese stock market:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bad arguments for Corbyn

Look, I'm sympathetic to the idea that a coherent Government needs a functioning opposition. I'm also sympathetic to the fear (espoused principally by Matthew Parris) that without a credible Labour Party to act as a buffer, much of the glue that holds the Tory party together will disappear. But this argument, made by Anne Perkins in the Guardian today, is just bizarre:
The Conservative party once recognised the importance of allowing opponents the space to represent their supporters’ views – that’s why Stanley Baldwin let a minority Labour government take office for the first time in 1924. Now, according to some reports, the party is plotting the exact reverse: to squeeze Labour out of the debate entirely, with a baptism of fire for whoever emerges victorious in September.
What? Baldwin didn't "let" Labour take office in 1924 - he lost his majority in December 1923 and lost the King's Speech debate in January 1924. And all Governments try and frame their opponents - that's what Gordon Brown's famous "dividing lines" were all about.
This new Tory style of trying to freeze-frame opposition leaders into a position from which they can never successfully escape is a kind of political torture porn. It is undemocratic. It is, potentially, even dangerous.
This is just weird: how on earth can it be undemocratic to hold votes in the Commons on matters that divide the parties?
As Britain’s nation-building adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan should bitterly remind everyone, among the many preconditions for a stable democracy is a culture of mutual respect.
One of Britain's major parties has a history of dehumanising their opponents and one party identifies itself as the only true moral force in politics. It isn't the Tories.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Pitch perfect

Coach wants same seaming pitches used for India series 
Australia coach Darren Lehmann has challenged England to produce the same green, seaming pitches they used to beat India when Australia visit next year.“The wickets were quite sporting over there in the last couple of Test matches,” said Lehmann. “The Oval … I can’t remember that sort of wicket being produced for an Australian Test match in the last 50 or 60 years, so that’s interesting in itself. “From my point of view, I am looking for those sort of wickets next year.”

ENGLAND stands accused of jeopardising the spirit of international cricket, with the Australian team left seething over the extremity of the pitch the ECB has doctored for the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Weight a minute...

Liz Kendall sounds jolly cross with the Mail on Sunday for asking how much she weighs:
In fact she looks the same weight as the Duchess – about 8st – though when I ask she slaps me down with a raucous ‘f*** off!’, adding quickly: ‘Don’t print that.’
Which is fair enough - it's nobody's business but her own how much she weighs. I'm not entirely sure that she's right to say, as she did to Buzzfeed, that this is all evidence of terrible sexism:
"I just think it’s unbelievable that in the 21st century women still get asked such very, very different questions from men. Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the prime minister, George Osborne or any other leading politician?"
Let's use that example shall we? Here are some Mail stories about George Osborne:
Strikingly skinny, our Chancellor's been on a cuts regime himself: QUENTIN LETTS on lean Osborne's latest move to slim the deficit
Is George trying TOO hard to be gorgeous? Osborne delivers Budget with a natty suit and Antonio Banderas-style haircut
Chancellor austerity policy on fast food! Osborne opts for the 5:2 diet as part of an image makeover
George Osborne provides a hugely informal - and VERY revealing - portrait of life at Downing Street
That last one includes the following (slightly emetic) line:
But it is more intimate matters that we discuss first. It is impossible not to notice his dramatic weight loss. He is a real skinny malink. ‘Am I?’ he says, modestly patting his slim line waist.
I have every sympathy with Liz Kendall not wanting to talk about her weight. Unfortunately I don't think that this is just a woman thing any more...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Running with the Fox & Hunting with the Hounds

The abiding dilemma with politics is how much is cock-up and how much is conspiracy. Let's take the fox-hunting bill as an example, first of all as a cock-up.

The Tories have a problem with their back-benchers (especially those of the red-meat persuasion). There is a residue of resentment from the way that the Labour Party forced through the fox hunting ban back in 2004, especially the none-too-subtle elements of class war that came with it. Since with his majority of 16 David Cameron is going to have to rely on his fractious back-benchers to get key legislation trough this Parliament, why not throw them a bone early? There's a problem, in that the ban is fairly totemic for the Labour Party, and there are enough Tory antis to prevent it getting through a vote of the full house, but this shouldn't be a problem because the fox-hunting bill only affects England and Wales, where the Tories have a thumping majority.  Into this stump the SNP, announcing that they will oppose the ban being relaxed and forcing the Government to pull the motion.

Results: Egg on face all round, Government looks weak and pusillanimous. SNP look like king-makers, and Labour get to keep their ban. Now, let's look at this again as a conspiracy.

The Tories have a long-term aim of instituting English Votes for English Laws, but certain back-benchers are unhappy about the means of getting there. A free vote on relaxing the fox-hunting ban was in the Tory manifesto, but the last thing David Cameron wants is endless wrangling about toffs on horseback. The SNP have used fox-hunting frequently as a perfect example of a bill which only affects England, and which they would therefore never vote on. However, it was always likely that they would be unable to resist stirring the pot by embarrassing the Government.

The result is a bill that plainly and obviously only affects England, but that the SNP go into linguistic contortions to justify voting against. At a stroke the 'self-denying convention' that the SNP have talked about in the past (partly as a reason EVEL is unnecessary) is blown forever. The need for EVEL (as far as the Tories are concerned) is clearer than ever. The back-bench Tories who have been most troublesome over EVEL are also among the most pro-hunting.

Result: SNP look duplicitous, hypocritical and a bit ridiculous. The Government has a concrete example of why EVEL is required, and its back-bench doubters have had a prize objective taken away from them because it hasn't been introduced yet.

Usually the answer to these questions is cock-up. I'm not so sure this time.